When you are different from most people around you, you need certain "conditions" to be able to thrive. And in most cases, you need to be asking for it
When I first got diagnosed with ADHD in 2012, my then psychiatrist wasn’t pleased that I was a freelancer who worked from home. “One of the key things about ADHD is that you inherently lack structure. So you need to bring structure in your life where possible”, she had said.
It would be another eight years before I would get back to proper full time employment. For, while the structure offered by a job was tempting, there was another countervailing factor that kept me away from it - a (possibly irrational) fear of open offices.
Through my first phase of office work (2006-11) I had developed an irrational fear of people looking into my screens. This was my first brush with professional life, and being completely unused to doing one thing for the whole day, I would be insanely distracted, and the distraction showed on my screen.
And maybe because of one old manager who had the habit of looking into people’s screens, I became rather conscious of this. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but be distracted and have everything except work on my screens. On the other, I would get bothered when people looked at my screen. So, in 2012, with a fresh ADHD diagnosis, I chose to not get a job.
Instead I continued consulting. I largely worked from home, and only visited clients for meetings. This worked out beautifully, in most assignments at least, and I can maybe claim that I was a pioneer in “hybrid work”.
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In any case, over the years, my fear of open offices only got enhanced. Sometimes I would spend more time at client locations than what was strictly necessary for meetings - sometimes it was quicker to get some work done there and turn things around. There would be time between meetings. A lot of clients were in another city. And so on.
And each time I simply sat in a client’s office, my fear and dislike of working from an office would grow. I would get tentative and withdraw into a shell. Maybe there was this feeling of an invasion of personal space. Maybe it was the noise. I felt like I couldn’t be my usual distracted self.
Back to work, and office
I still remember the day when I decided I’ll get back to a job. It was the 1st of October 2020. The pandemic-related restrictions were still fully on. That day, I drove my daughter to a school event at a farm near Sarjapur (outskirts of Bangalore, past the usually crowded new-age office complexes). With everyone working from home, the roads were empty and the drive was a breeze.
“If I get back to a job now, I can work from home, and not have to bear the traffic to come to this part of town”, was my first thought. My second thought was more relevant (with the benefit of hindsight) - “if I get a job now, I can start remotely. And maybe I can settle in my job by the time I get back to an office, and circumvent my fear of offices”.
That was prescient. For the first year in this job, I was largely remote. As I told someone, “this gave me a chance to show my work without showing many of my quirks”. By the time we slowly started returning to offices, I had got over my fear of open offices. I had learnt enough to not care about people wanting to look at my screen as they passed me (maybe it helps that I’m fairly “senior” in the organisation now).
By taking a job at a time when everyone was remote, I had given myself an “accommodation” to help manage my ADHD. And for nine years before that, with a largely work-from-home lifestyle , I had given myself another kind of accommodation to manage an ADHD.
When you have some kind of a chronic condition - whether it is neurodiversity (as in my case), or a physical or mental illness, or a disability - you try to seek accommodations, changes in your environment that will help you cope better with the world.
My working from home and taking a job during the pandemic were examples of such accommodations. However, in a lot of cases, accommodations need not be done for yourself - sometimes you can ask people around you (spouses, friends, colleagues, etc.) to make accommodations for you to help you cope better with your chronic condition.
While in places like in the US, ADHD might be well studied, in most of the rest of the world, people don’t know what to expect when they come across someone with ADHD. As a consequence it is not normal for people to offer you accommodations (unless you have some insanely enlightened counterparties) - you need to ask for it.
And if you need to ask for accommodations, you need to know what kind of accommodations you need, and what is non-negotiable for you to be productive. Also, with ADHD being a spectrum syndrome, no two people will want the same kind of accommodations (making the job of the counterparties even harder). So it’s doubly important for you to know what you want, and ask for it.
As I had mentioned above, by the time I got back to an office, I was in the company for long enough to not care about people looking into my screen. However, that was only one problem with open offices I had. The other, and less tractable, one was noise.
Our old office had especially bad acoustics, which meant that one person on a loud phone call could make the entire floor unproductive - rather, the entire floor would become unproductive if it was filled with people like me. Others somehow seemed to not mind.
Given that I’m especially distractable, I’m incredibly sensitive to noise. If it is the buzz of “white noise” (lots of people talking simultaneously so that it all blends in) then it is manageable. However, if it is one or two conversations, it is impossible to get anything done.
I remember spending a few months trying various ways to dodge the noise in my office. Changing which floor I sat on. Asking people to be less loud. Trying to grab meeting rooms for work whenever possible. Threatening to blast heavy metal in the office if people didn’t get less loud on their phone calls (yes, I did that once). Nothing worked.
And then I bought myself a pair of heavy duty noise cancelling headphones. And that has so far worked like a charm. We have since moved to a bigger (and much better) office. When I take my headphones off, there is inevitably something that disturbs me. People continue to be loud and not use headphones for online meetings, but with my trusty Sony WH1000-XM4, it doesn’t matter (unless I need to talk to someone in my team, which can’t be done with headphones on!).
Maybe I could have asked for a cabin (a number of people of my level have one in my office), but the headphones mean I’ve chosen not to. Then again, your mileage may vary.
Others accommodating you
Whether you ask for a certain accommodation or it is handed over to you, what is important to keep in mind is that you can’t make all the accommodations for yourself - a lot of your life involves others making accommodations for you.
For example, since the time I joined this job, I’ve kept my mornings blocked (Google Calendar has this wonderful concept of “focus time”). Nobody has really bothered me about that. I have let it be known widely that I don’t like meetings, or phone calls, and people should just contact me on email or IM. And most people have respected that, and not put unnecessary meetings on my calendar. When people do call me on my phone, a lot of time they start with an apology (“I know you don’t like calls but I wanted to check this quick thing… “. So far, no one has abused this).
At home, my wife fully understands that any kind of admin work can be stressful for me, and so takes up a lot of it herself. For example, earlier this year we had to renew our locker agreement at a public sector bank. She went for it twice so that I didn’t have to (at a family level, this was “cheaper” for us). She manages the household help since she knows I can’t do that well.
When I’m blogging (or short-form writing of any other manner), my wife and daughter know that I should not be disturbed (less “Ganesha happens”), and allow me to be in my zone. Over the years, my wife has become far more tolerant of my digressions and distractions when having important discussions.
When my lack of empathy, or feeling of violation, means that I communicate inappropriately with others, she is now more tolerant of it, and is not too harsh with me.
If you are a neurotypical, who has largely dealt with neurotypicals, reading this, you might get the picture that people with ADHD might be rather high maintenance, and wonder why you need to accommodate at all.
The answer to this needs a separate essay, that I’ll write another day. It is about the benefits that people with ADHD can offer you in your job, and in life.